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Ignoring this Small Skiing Injury Could Lead to Lifelong Problems

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Ignoring this Small Skiing Injury Could Lead to Lifelong Problems

Dec 17, 2014

There's a common skiing injury that can quickly develop into a chronic and painful condition if ignored. The problem is many times it’s shrugged off as a tweak or strain, so it goes untreated and develops into a life changing injury that might prevent you from skiing again. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Rothberg describes the symptoms of skier's thumb, how it happens and why it’s so important to get it looked at immediately after you first notice the symptoms.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: You come back from the slopes, and your thumb is hurting really, really badly. Is it something you should worry about or not? We'll find out next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: Dr. David Rothberg is an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Utah Hospital. We're going to talk about something called "skier's thumb" right now. So you go for a day of skiing, you come back, your thumb hurts. Do you have skier's thumb or not? How do you even know? First of all, what is skier's thumb?

What Is Skier's Thumb?

Dr. Rothberg: Skier's thumb is a relatively common injury of the upper extremity suffered when someone falls on a pole. So the most common scenario is with a grip-fitted poles, you fall, and the pole is forced into the palm as you place your hand down to slow your fall.

People know when they have it because the actual ligament that's hurt is your ulnar collateral ligament on your thumb, and it supports your thumb as a post. So when you pinch with your forefinger and your thumb . . .

Interviewer: Kind of making the "OK" symbol except for against the side of your thumb . . .

Dr. Rothberg:That's putting pressure on that collateral ligament.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Rothberg: If you think about all the daily tasks we do with grip strength and manipulating objects with your hand, it's really common that we use your thumb as a post. So the quickest and dirtiest way to figure this out is to use your thumb as a post. Press your forefinger against the side of your thumb and see if it hurts at the large knuckle at the base of your palm, or your MCP joint.

Interviewer: So it refers pain down, because you're touching at the very top part of the thumb, and it's kind of coming down, the base of the nail almost, off to the side.

Dr. Rothberg: Right, and you're going to feel that.

Interviewer: Okay. And if you feel that, is it for sure that you've got skier's thumb?

Dr. Rothberg: It may not be for sure, because like all ligament injuries, it can really come with a grade of injury, from a sprain, which the vast majorities will be, to complete tears, to fractures of the insertion of the ligament.

When to See an Orthopedic Hand Surgeon

Interviewer: So if you're feeling pain, should you go see somebody right away? Is it important that you see somebody or should you just kind of wait and see if it goes away?

Dr. Rothberg: I think, in the very beginning, if this is something that gets better very quickly, then you're probably safe. But if you have a persistent pain lasting more than a day or two, and it's causing dysfunction, it's worthwhile to get checked out by an orthopedic hand surgeon.

They're most commonly going to take an X-ray to rule out that scenario where there may be fracture associated with it. The reason that you want to take care of this is it can lead to a chronic instability of that joint, meaning that you're no longer able to fully use your thumb as a post because of non-healing of the ligament.

So the typical course of treatment is in a non-operative setting, which is the vast majority, is a brace. That brace is going to hold your thumb in a position that protects it from being used as a post or really straining or stressing that ligament as it attaches at the MCP joint.

Skier's Thumb Brace

Interviewer: So it sounds like kind of a big deal, because it could hinder your usage of that for the rest of your life if you don't have something done to it, and it's simple. It's a brace.

Dr. Rothberg: That's exactly right. When chronically injured, then it becomes something kind of interesting historically. It's called a "gamekeeper's thumb," and that referred to when people who farmed chickens they would break the neck of the chicken over their thumb, and it could lead to repetitive stress on the ligament, that then loosened it and then caused chronic disability.

So that's the worry when you don't take care of this skier's thumb is that it becomes a chronic instability that causes pain and dysfunction.

Interviewer: How long does it take for this to recover at this point, after you get the brace?

Dr. Rothberg: Typically, people are in the brace from four to six weeks, and then depending on the range of motion and tasks that they have in their daily life, they may start some hand therapy. Motion tends to help with the healing process. All in all, people can be back to activities around the six week mark.

Interviewer: So just for perspective, not something to be taken lightly. Not to go, "Aw, it's just my thumb. I won't worry about it."

Dr. Rothberg: That's very true, and I think it's a real common one that people get and take lightly, and then are presenting to us later with problems.

Is it too Late to Fix the Problem?

Interviewer: Then it's too late. Is it too late at that point? I guess that's a good question. What if three years down the road, I come in? Is it too late to fix that problem?

Dr. Rothberg: It isn't necessarily too late, depending on whether you've developed any arthritis in the joint because of instability. Certainly, there are late reconstructions, where we can reconstruct the ligament to give you stability. In most people, this tends to be something they pick up and don't really miss, because it does cause quite a bit of dysfunction. But getting it looked at sooner is always better than later.

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